Stone that may floor Middle East's Goliath

It may have to punch above its weight but South Africa has a historical obligation to help the Palestinians to achieve their dream of freedom from Israel. (Reuters)

It may have to punch above its weight but South Africa has a historical obligation to help the Palestinians to achieve their dream of freedom from Israel. (Reuters)

The Middle East Quartet, composed of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia, was established in 2002 following the outbreak of the second intifada and the collapse of the peace negotiations as a result.

Since then, it has achieved almost nothing. The quartet, whose mandate was and still remains the facilitation of the peace process between Israel and Palestine to achieve the so-called two-state solution through direct negotiations, has in recent times delivered itself to the altar of international critique owing to its failure to bring the parties closer to an agreement or, at least, to the negotiating table. There is no need to celebrate the quartet's 10th anniversary because it has failed dismally and deserves to be assessed critically.

A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains elusive, despite being on the agenda of the UN for more than 60 years.
Even though the UN Security Council, the body tasked with the maintenance of international peace and security, meets every month to discuss this matter, a sustainable solution remains a fantasy.

The international community is often collectively and disingenuously blamed for the slow or no progress on this issue, but the fact of the matter is that the US, a veto-wielding permanent member of the security council, is directly responsible for the stalemate in the peace process. Perhaps there could be utility in considering Noam Chomsky's suggestion that the negotiations should "be organised by some neutral party, maybe Brazil, and on one side you'd have the US and Israel, on the other side you'd have the world".

In the run-up to the recent presidential elections in the US and the shambles of Eurogeddon, the quartet has seen its activities curtailed. It last met in April last year and was scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, but owing to President Barack Obama's campaign schedule the meeting could not take place. Despite Russia's call for a meeting of the quartet during the recent crisis in Gaza, the organisation did not meet. Russia has claimed that the inactivity of the quartet contributed to the escalation of the crisis in Gaza.

Following his release from prison Nelson Mandela took on the Palestinian struggle for self-determination but, as a mortal operating within the constraints of global power politics characterised by a conspicuous Pax Americana hubris, he could do only so much. But since Mandela the Palestinian question has occupied a central place in the country's foreign policy. The ANC is sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle and never fails to highlight it in its major policy conferences.

The South Africa that is known for punching above its weight has vociferously challenged the effectiveness of the quartet to the point of suggesting that it be abolished. This suggestion has been and continues to be made in both public and private deliberations, especially in the private meetings of the mighty security council, whose secretive gatherings are designed to conceal the body's ineffectiveness and to cushion its powerful permanent members from public rebuke.

The logical question that follows is: Can the David that is South Africa conquer the Goliath that is the Middle East Quartet? The answer is a resounding yes.

The biblical David used a sling and stones to defeat his enemy. South Africa will have to use its influence, which is reinforced by the country's historical and current credentials, to join hands with other members of the UN, especially the other four permanent members of the security council – Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France – which are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Judging by the results of the recent UN general assembly vote, when France, Russia and China voted in favour of a resolution admitting Palestine to the UN fold as a non-member observer state despite pressure from the US, there is hope that Africa's David will conquer the Middle East Goliath. Unfortunately, the UK seems to have succumbed to US pressure. Nonetheless, this resolution gave Palestine the status of a state, which bestows on the country the liberty and power to enjoy statehood by, inter alia, signing and acceding to international covenants.

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South Africa could also use the political opportunities offered by its membership of Ibsa (India, Brazil and South Africa) and Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to put pressure on the US to help expedite the peace process. The US could nudge Israel to stop counterproductive actions, such as the settlements construction policies, which remain a major stumbling block to the resumption of talks and threaten the achievability of the two-state solution.

In the event that the quartet cannot be disbanded, South Africa has suggested that attempts be made to reconfigure its membership to include individual Arab countries or representatives of the Arab League. South Africa has also been critical of the role of the secretary general of the UN in this body, who supposedly represents the organisation but never provides regular feedback to member states about the work of the quartet. In its report, The Emperor Has No Clothes: Palestinians and the End of the Peace Process, the International Crisis Group said that: "Some have argued for expanding it [the quartet] to include emerging powers such as Brazil and Turkey and perhaps some Arab states, in order to more accurately reflect the new global balance of power".

South Africa must continue to punch above its weight until the struggle of the Palestinian people is realised – hopefully soon. The quartet cannot continue to be used to close the political space to other mediation efforts, as reportedly said by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell to a senior French diplomat: "The reason the quartet was formed was to make sure that nobody else could do anything."

One hopes that the quartet will soon make a critical assessment of its work and allow itself to metamorphose or die.

Bongie Mcakuvana is a South African diplomat based at the country's permanent mission to the United Nations in New York. He writes in his personal capacity

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